Tag Archives: Faith

Hume, Penn Jillette, and faith v reason

I mentioned I’d been reading Hume the other day. He characterises “religious people” in a slightly well-poisoning way in the midst of his discussion in Dialogues on Natural Religion

“And here we may observe, continued he, turning himself towards DEMEA, a pretty curious circumstance in the history of the sciences. After the union of philosophy with the popular religion, upon the first establishment of Christianity, nothing was more usual, among all religious teachers, than declamations against reason, against the senses, against every principle derived merely from human research and inquiry… The Reformers embraced the same principles of reasoning, or rather declamation; and all panegyrics on the excellency of faith, were sure to be interlarded with some severe strokes of satire against natural reason.”

This characterisation has become a bit of a meme. It treats all religious belief as outside of human reason, a case Hume attempted to make in his seminal ‘Of Miracles’ in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, Hume argues that because miracles don’t happen, because they are outside of nature, and are almost impossible to verify using a naturalistic framework (a somewhat circular approach to the supernatural), religious belief operates in the world of faith, not reason. He pushes a form of fideism. The belief that reason and faith are in conflict. He does this because he needs to maintain some veneer of being an orthodox Christian, because not being an orthodox Christian in 18th century Scotland is pretty difficult – fideism is a cop out, Hume probably didn’t hold to it – given that his entire academic program contradicted it, and it’s pretty sloppy arguing, on behalf of modern atheists to characterise faith in this way.

Fideism is dumb. Faith might be the belief in things unseen or hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), but it is also based on experience and observation, and not a little reason. That’s pretty consistently been the Christian approach to faith and knowledge since, well, forever. That’s why science was a product of Christians trying to read and understand God’s world better. Seriously. Google Francis Bacon. And it’s why atheistic naturalism’s sweeping claims are devoid of anything that looks like history or philosophy

It’d be great for the thinking, intellectually honest, atheists out there to break free of the group think shackles of this meme, and start admitting they don’t have a monopoly on reason.

But no. It continues. Enter Penn Jillette’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Penn’s a smart guy. He’s funny. He’s been reasonably nice about Christians in the past – while clearly disagreeing with people of faith. But this article perpetuates a false meme. To be fair, he’s answering an equally annoying meme from our side – the claim that atheism is a religion…

Here’s what he says…

Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share.

Faith is a hypothesis, as is atheism, about the question of God’s existence on the basis of evidence – like revelation, history, philosophy, and not a little bit of reasoning on the basis of our own existence.

It’s a positive hypothesis, while atheism is a negative hypothesis. There are plenty of less than good systems of religion built on varying types of faith – but faith itself should never be maintained contrary to actual evidence. It’s just that the evidence that naturalists put forward is so dissatisfying on anything but a purely material level, and in its modern form (possibly since Hume) it fails to consider any alternative frameworks and anything that has come before it. Hume was pretty good at characterising or ignoring the people who made good arguments against what he was saying, his whole project in Dialogues and Enquiry essentially ignores 1,700 years of Christian thought that is relevant to the natural theology exercise. Christians have something to say on how we read nature based on the Bible – and I’m not talking about accounts of human origins, but accounts of human nature, and the application of a Christian anthropology to the scientific endeavour had been serving us pretty well since Christians kicked the scientific process off because they believed God supplied a guarantee that the natural order would continue in the way that he created it to operate.

That is all.

Defining Faith

My biggest problem with the New Atheists boils down to this:

That’s not faith. Here’s how Hebrews 11 defines faith:

1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.

I would suggest, humble readers, that this definition of faith – belief in the unseen – is not the same as deliberately not seeing. Which is the way most atheists seem to frame it. Seeing something and denying it is not faith – which is a problem for some Christians, I’ll admit. But thought and faith are not in opposition – faith simply deals with that which we hope and do not see. I don’t have faith that a chair will hold me. I trust that it will. Because I have watched it, or experienced it, holding me. That’s where, I think, faith and trust are different.

If I had found any contradictory evidence (ala point 1 of the above definition), ie if I had seen it – then it would no longer be faith keeping me in a position (according to Hebrews 11) but stupidity. Taking something “on faith” does not mean not seeking to confirm the thing by investigation, or observation – and it does not mean holding a position contrary to logic, reason, or observation. This is where I think Atheists 2.0 have it most wrong. At least second most wrong. I think not believing in God is where they have it most wrong…

That is all.

The Friendly Atheist

I’ve been reading a bit of the back catalogue of the Friendly Atheist, who is in fact a friendly atheist – it’s a same about his lunatic band of followers who deface every moderate post with comments about why Christianity should not exist… I’ve been doing this because I think engaging with just one or two posts from this sort of blog and getting all preachy in the comments is harmful. I like to understand context before I go off disagreeing (yes my specific atheist friends this is important to Christians…).

The Friendly Atheist, Hermant Mehta, achieved some fame ebaying off his time with a promise to visit churches identified by the winning bidder. He turned it into a book – which would no doubt be informative reading for anybody wanting to look at church practices from the outside. He also used his experience to write a couple of reflective posts – one about things about church that are annoying (and I agree with most of them) – as do many Christian commenters on the post (which is still getting comments almost 2 years later)… and this one – ten things Christians do better than atheists – which is a bit less friendly. I guess because both target the fringe parts of Christianity that I personally have struggles with… Which in itself is interesting. I think the “rational” evangelical arm of Christianity probably spends a lot of time agreeing with atheists and throwing stones at Christian brothers rather than focusing on the unity we have with our “irrational” fellow Christians. Which is pretty challenging. Especially in the light of passages like 1 Corinthians 1 (incidentally if you google the phrase: 1 Corinthians 1 biblegateway esv – the third result down is a page on the MPC website (dad’s church for the uninitiated))…

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

The more I grapple with, and try to convince my atheist friends of the rationality of the gospel the more I am convinced that this is the case – they’re going to read this and tell me I’m copping out for falling back on a proof text written in order to justify just this criticism – but that’s where I guess our “doctrine” of Scripture disagrees. If it’s a true representation of God’s intentions why wouldn’t the Bible say it?

Craig linked to the article from the Friendly Atheist I posted the other day, with a wise disclaimer encouraging Christians to be sensitive when posting – advice I perhaps failed to heed with my own comments – lest we give more ammunition to the disdain these atheists show for Christianity. It’s particularly pertinent advice given some of the “drive by” evangelism that happens in the comments on that blog – evangelism without relationship is pretty futile. As perhaps best expressed by this Friendly Atheist post of advice for Christians as they evangelise to atheists

Doubt fired

While introducing myself to the iMonk website I came across this great essay on doubt. Particularly Christian doubt. It’s helpful, I think.
A couple of quotes:

These doubts have made me respect my honest, unbelieving friends. To many of them, it isn’t so much the content of Christianity that is ridiculous. It’s the idea that Christians are so certain; so doubtless. They find it untenable that anyone could bury their own doubts so deep that you are as certain as Christians appear to be. Our television and radio preachers, our musicians and booksellers, the glowing testimonial at church, the zealous fanatic at the break table at work–they all say that Christians no longer have the doubts and questions of other people. Only certainties. And for many thoughtful unbelievers, that appears to be lying or delusion, and they would prefer to avoid both.

So do I. I profoundly dislike the unspoken requirement among Christians that we either bury all our doubts out in back of the church, or we restrict them to a list of specific religious questions that can be handled in polite conversations dispensing tidy, palatable answers. Mega-doubts. Nightmarish doubts. “I’m wasting my whole life” doubts are signs one may not be a Christian, and you’ve just made it to the prayer list.

My doubts exist alongside my appetite for God. I believe no one has put forward a more cogent and persuasive critique of theism than Sigmund Freud. Freud’s contention that human beings create a God in the sky out of their longings for a perfect father and their fear of death has the virtue of common sense and realism. As a Christian, I do not doubt that vast tracts of human religiosity can be explained by Freud’s analysis. Yet, Freud is wrong. The Biblical God is not wishful thinking, but the center of the spiritual “appetite” of human beings. Billions of human beings would prefer no God exist. Billions of human beings would like to make God in the image of Santa or Oprah. Yet, Christianity, Judaism (and even Islam) persistently put forward a God who is terrifying to who we are. A just, holy God of judgment. A God of heaven and hell. Not the God of the wishful thinkers, but the God who is a consuming fire.

And it is this God that we long to know. This God who repulses us and damns us. This God who demands the purity of thought and action. A God who demands that we love Him with all that we are and love our fellow persons as His creations. It is this God that we long to know in intimacy. It is this God we long to be accepted by, to trust and to praise. This God is the source of all the notions of beauty, truth and goodness that we find in this universe. C.S. Lewis said that appetite could not prove the existence of food, but I don’t think that speaks for the experience of the starving person.

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On dialogue with atheists

I have some friends who are atheists – not just soft agnostics like most of society – but reasoned, secular humanists who think Dawkins lacks objectivity and is a rabid fundamentalist. You know, the logical type of atheists who have thought through life and made their own conclusions on the basis of the evidence they see around them. The type who make “moral judgements” based on empathy and reason. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in pretty intense debate with them via email. The discussion has been protracted and mostly frustrating. I’ve also been feeling pretty outnumbered – it was three to one and then they introduced these two guys I’ve never met into the email circle. One of them is pretty much the only person who now reads this blog – so hi. I actually don’t know where he sits on the issue because he just commentates on the debate – and how much he hates analogies. 

This debate has made me question – not my beliefs – but my response to having them attacked. Pride is something I struggle with. I want to be right, I want to engage in the debate in an intellectual sense and essentially prove my faith* and convince these guys they should convert – and be just like me. Which again, kind of misses the point of Christianity – because I should be trying to convince people to be just like Christ. Here’s the rub – the Bible promises that the world’s wisdom will see Christianity and its message of a capitally punished God as foolishness (1 Corinthians) – so I can’t expect to be convincing, nor can I mention this in some kind of argumentative context – because to argue the veracity of something using that thing doesn’t really stack up. I can’t say “the Bible is true because it says it is.” Nor can I say “the Bible is true because I have experienced that it is” – because that is subjective. I also can’t say – “the Bible is true because all the observable evidence (ie pain and suffering) suggest it is” – because all the observable evidence is observed, and compartmentalised based on the starting hypothesis – ie if God is not there it’s all just chance and coincidence. My basic instinct in this debate is to debate. To apologise (in the “mount a defence for” sense) for my beliefs. Is this the right way to respond? I’m not convinced that it is – not in the frames of science and philosophy.

Science is limited. Science has merit, and a place in the world. Science answers questions of cause and effect, and makes observations to test and demonstrate hypotheses – science is good at what it does. What it can’t do is test that which can not be observed – and it is limited to the theories and subjective whims of those testing them through hypothesis. I can observe “facts” and essentially plug them into my frame of reference to demonstrate a theory. The theory always comes first.

History also has limits – postmodern criticism has merit – but to rob any text of the chance of being true and accurate objective history does a disservice to our understanding of human history and anthropology. Why can’t we trust the accounts of a number of people recorded in the one book – from very separate original documents – to reveal truth? This exercise also taught me that those who are passionately disinterested – or dispassionately interested – in Christianity have very little knowledge of the actual text of the Bible – and its history. Instead relying on years of inaccuracies and insipid, purposeful lies. “The bible has been changed over time” is one of those half truths that misses the point – it hasn’t been changed by whim – but by desire to bring it closer to the original text based on rigourous academic scholarship. It has been used as a political tool in the past – and those who most stridently opposed that were the Christian church – and these men were martyred for the cause. This sort of shoddy criticism has no grounding in anything but what my atheist friend told me in primary school so I believed it.

I think it’s unhelpful to present this debate (theism v atheism) in the sphere of the rational, observable or philosophical. To do so puts the existence of God on our terms – a God by nature transcends the rational and observable. God sets the rules for this debate – not humans. To move God into these realms, and into our terms is not rational or reasonable – if God exists then there is no reason for him to conform to our experience of the world – or human conventions of understanding – anymore than there is reason for us to bark when communicating to dogs. We do not do this when interacting with our subordinates (the animal kingdom).

Thanks to Dawkins, Atheists now tackle these arguments by realigning the burden of proof and changing the terminology – now we, “theists” have to demonstrate why God must exist – before even tackling which God they should believe in. Therefore the Bible is dismissed as an authority (partly because post-modern literary criticism means nothing can be trusted as true anymore), Christians can’t claim any unique authority on the debate on the basis of the historicity of Jesus – particularly because any of the eye-witness accounts to his life must now be ignored or disputed, any third party accounts of Christianity – and the leaders of the early church – are not as valuable as “modern science” and observation – and the default position is now that the complexity of life is a product of randomness and an infinite spectrum of time. I don’t really understand that being the default. Atheists are now critical of the “watchmaker” assumption – ie when you see a wristwatch in a field you assume based on complexity the watch was designed and placed there. I think that’s something that’s been slowly indoctrinated. Atheists are now taught to proselytize in the same way they accuse Christians of brainwashing their children and others.

One of these guys scoffed at my suggestion that his lifestyle is the result of his atheism – and vice versa. He suggested the two were not linked. The atheist point of view by definition dismisses the idea of God – and hence questions regarding whether their atheism influences the way they live are flawed – theism v atheism is still the fundamental question that ultimately shapes the worldview of the individual – morals, ethics, philosophy and conduct all stem from this fundamental position – whether we (or they) like it or not.

The “church” has been responsible for some terrible injustices over time – or at least these have been conducted in the name of the church – ignoring the wildly publicised misdemeanours and wars, in a broader sense the church has failed to adequately educate casual church attendees. Both these atheists had backgrounds including church attendance. Both had strong – and in my opinion inaccurate – understandings of the “teachings of the church” and felt adequately qualified to make assessments on the basis of their childhood experiences. This may be unfairly representing their opinions and positions – but in my opinion something as serious as religion – and the underlying foundation we build our lives on – should be considered by adult minds. Both in the case of people who have always been Christians – and in the case of people who have chosen not to be. In either case I’d hate to think this is the kind of decision you make at 10 and never revisit.

It’s been a pretty interesting discussion all told – and I’d love any readers input on the issue. This post ended up being much longer than I planned.

*Not technically scientifically possible because faith is the belief in something that can’t be observed.